As President Barack Obama's two terms near an end and we talk of his legacy, we cannot ignore the grand come-together vision of unity he expressed in his 2004 debut on the national stage — and wonder what happened to it.
We are not "red states" and "blue states" but "the United States of America," he said to vigorous applause.
After the divisive election that brought us President-elect Donald Trump, a lot of people have been moved to assert that Obama has made race relations worse. As an African-American who remembers far worse race relations in the country, I disagree. To me, it looks as though a lot of people are merely irritated, whether they realize it or not, that they have to think about race relations at all, and they're taking out their frustrations at Obama.
In fact, Obama has received considerable criticism from critics to his own left who are frustrated over his lack of programs targeted specifically to underprivileged black Americans.
Beyond race, many Obama supporters are frustrated that he so often bargained from the middle on issues like the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, which Trump and other Republicans now are determined to dismantle.
When I asked then-Sen. Obama during his 2008 primary campaign why he did not simply call for Medicare to be extended to cover everyone, not just seniors, he responded sensibly that such a bold proposition, appealing as it might sound, would never get through Congress.
Maybe not, I felt, but at least he could try. Instead Obama pushed an ACA that was based on ideas from the conservative Heritage Foundation that Mitt Romney enacted as governor of Massachusetts. Yet this bold good-faith appeal by Obama for Republican support was rebuffed by congressional conservatives in much the same way that his other major proposals were rejected by the right.
Sure, there are complaints by Republicans that Obama could have done more to reach out than he did. But now that the fate of Obamacare is in Republican hands, it is their turn to face their own political base with an enduring Washington reality: campaigning is hard, governing is even harder.
Congress' has the power to repeal ACA, but political realities dictate that they can't cut off millions from access to health insurance without replacing it with something comparable — or, as Trump has vaguely promised, "something terrific."
A lot of people receiving ACA help don't even know that it's the "Obamacare" that conservatives have taught them to hate. But they will know who to blame if Republicans take it away.
Even Trump has begun to view Obamacare more favorably after finding out what's in it. After his first meeting with Obama he came out with new promises to keep such central features as universal coverage without exclusions for preexisting conditions and the right to keep one's children on one's health plan until they reach age 26.
How is this basket of goodies to be funded? Trump did not say. As usual, he's leaving those not-trivial details to Congress to decide.
Meanwhile, in his final weeks in office, Obama has busied himself with last-minute executive actions that also serve as rear-guard roadblocks to help protect his legacy.
For example, he has named new environmental monuments for federal protection. He has written a new rule to protect Planned Parenthood funding from state interference. He has ordered the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay. He has punished Russia for interfering in the recent elections through cyberattacks.
Sure, Trump can reverse Obama's executive orders. But as Obama found when he was forced by Iraq's leaders to follow George W. Bush's timetable for Iraq withdrawal, a president in his or, someday, her final days can do a lot to intrude on a successor's agenda.
When former president George W. Bush was asked about his legacy after two terms in office, he told a CNN interviewer, "History will ultimately judge the decisions that were made ... and I'm just not going to be around to see the final verdict."
"In other words," he added, "I'll be dead."
President Obama may not have to wait that long. Legacies are in the eye of the beholder. But sometimes people don't really appreciate your agenda until they see somebody else try to take it away.